"Curiosity" - what a perfect name for our new Mars rover. Ever since the famed "seven minutes of terror" as the bot touched down on the red planet, Mars has been a topic of conversation even among groups that normally don't discuss astronomy.
What is our fascination with our neighbor? And a fascination it is - Mars has been the subject of countless books, movies, television shows and even conspiracy theories. Even ancient cultures showed an inordinate amount of interest in our rocky red neighbor - so, why Mars in particular?
Yes, the moon is closer, and occupies an even larger part of our collective consciousness, but we don't see it as a planet - Mars is an actual planet, like Earth is a planet - and was thought to harbor life until relatively recently.
The very idea of another planet is fascinating. Think about everything we take for granted about our own - a place to be, firm ground to stick to. That's Mars, too. Sure, Jupiter, Saturn, Neptune and Uranus are much bigger and more impressive, but they are gas giants - no terra firma. Just vapor through and through. No, we like the rocky planets, like Earth.
Why not Venus, our other neighbor? It's rocky, sure - but it's also incredibly violent. Venus has dramatic topography that echoes our grandest canyons and our most regal mountains, but she's incredibly inhospitable - we have a difficult time imagining her to be anything like our beloved Earth.
All it lacks is the water - oh wait, Mars has polar ice caps! Know what other planet has polar ice caps? To a civilization that has grown and flourished on this one single planet, we expect a planet to have polar ice caps.
We expect polar ice caps with dry land in between - Mars delivers. It even has riverbeds where water may have once flowed - could Mars be a picture of what Earth may look like someday?
Truth be told, climatologists tell us that Venus is closer to our own planet's future, with the greenhouse effect and all, but it's still Mars that steals our imagination.
Someday, it may become necessary - soon enough, relatively speaking, that there are people working on it now. The target? Mars. Think about it - it's close, it's about the same size as Earth, it has similar gravity, and the days are 24.6 hours long. Very, very familiar.
All we need is a way to produce food and water, a way to get past the cold, and a way to get there. Once those bases are covered, it will feel more like living in an extreme Earth climate, and not so much like an entirely different planet at all.
We as a species, with our modern knowledge, now have an instinctual sense of how alone we are in the universe. We long for neighbors, for others. We thought they were on Mars - and how convenient that would have been - but were we relieved or disappointed when it was proven otherwise?